Jonathan Bernstein argues that there should be a different vocabulary to talk about “limited” military strikes:
The press, along with the political establishment, utterly failed to find, or at least to consistently use, a vocabulary for what was on the table. Certainly air or missile strikes are an act of war, and should be reported as such; just as certainly, those sorts of limited attacks always bring with them the risk of additional involvement – either from retaliation or from mission creep. At the same time, calling that “going to war” summons up images of, well, troops marching, and casualties coming home to hospitals or in body bags. Even keeping the risks in mind, that’s not what was being talked about. A vocabulary is really needed to make clear that it is “real” war, but that it’s also not at all similar to Iraq, the Gulf War, or other full-out invasions.
I don’t see why a new vocabulary is required. If firing missiles at the armed forces of another government is an act of war, and it certainly is, the vocabulary to describe this already exists. If many people have a certain idea of what it means to “go to war” that refers to a bigger commitment than “limited” strikes, that doesn’t change what the government is proposing to do. The debate over military action this month was one over whether the U.S. should wage war against another government. Even if that war was only supposed to be for a “short duration,” that was the action being considered. Even when the U.S. has suffered no casualties in some of its military interventions over the last twenty years, it was most definitely going to war when it was bombing Serbia or Libya, and it would have been doing the same thing if it had attacked Syria.
The administration may have its own incentives, both legal and political, to deny that this is what they wanted to do, but it is hardly the responsibility of journalists or anyone else outside the administration to indulge them in this. Obviously, firing missiles at another country is not the same as launching large-scale ground invasions or military campaigns involving hundreds of thousands of soldiers, but then I think everyone participating in the debate understands this. Nonetheless, it would have involved at a minimum using considerable military force to compel another state to punish it and to try to alter its behavior. That’s war, and it’s appropriate and necessary to call it that so that the public is not misled.